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The Smart Demon

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

Epiphany 4 B        Mark 1:21-28

Last Sunday, I told you that Mark was a gospel writer in a hurry. The story he most wants to share, and wants us to slow down and pay careful attention to, is the story of Holy Week – the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, Son of God, Messiah, …and we will certainly do that in just a couple of weeks when the season of Lent begins.

But for now, this is still Epiphany and so we’re still in that early part of Mark’s book that’s moving very fast. We’re still in his first chapter, just twenty verses in, and already Jesus has (1) been baptized, (2) tempted for forty days in the wilderness, (3) began his public ministry with a call to repentance and an announcement of the nearness of God and God’s reign, and (4) called his first four disciples to follow him.

By contrast, in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, we would be near the end of the fourth chapter before we get to this point in the story. But in Mark, as I said, things are happening fast, and the author isn’t going into much detail at all, which doesn’t mean these aren’t important events worthy of our attention. It just means that we need to pay more careful attention to the few precious nuggets of information that Mark gives us.
And one of those nuggets of important truth about Jesus actually comes to us today from the mouth of a demon, in the form of a couple of very direct and pointed questions.

Mark would have us know right from the start of Jesus ministry that his coming into the world triggered a cosmic spiritual showdown, and was nothing less than a decisive encounter between the living God and the powers that have made a mess of God’s good creation and the people God made and loves.

In other words, the drama of Holy Week that Mark is pushing us towards may look like a human drama driven by chief priests and Roman officials and denials and betrayals and arrests and trials, but what’s really happening in the midst of all that is what’s happening right here in this brief little story today: the powers of evil, the spiritual forces that have made a mess of God’s good creation and the people God made and loves are being defeated, routed, done in and driven out.

When Jesus’ very first act is to drive out a demon, Mark is using his first century understanding and language to describe Jesus’ purpose and mission to be driving out and defeating all of the dirty, noisy, chaotic, disruptive, unhelpful thoughts, feelings or impulses that so captivate our lives and world, including the addictions, compulsions and dependencies, physical, chemical, emotional and spiritual that we and our world so suffer from  these days, and find we simply cannot control – struggles not always of our own making much less deserving that come from outside and beyond us, and are beyond our best efforts to manage or change.

To keep it short and simple like Mark, let’s just say that the human reality that the first century world found to be best expressed in the language and imagery of demons and demon possession is still the human reality that we face today. In Jesus, God was coming to deal with everything that we are asked to renounce when we baptize a new Christian: the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, the ways of sin that draw us from God. In other words, we all know what it means to be subject to or in the nasty grip of powers and compulsions or impulses that we cannot control. We all have our demons, whether we understand that term to be figurative or literal.

So it’s important to notice that the first thing Jesus does to begin his public ministry and his journey to the cross is confront this demon, face down this dirty, noisy chaotic reality, and let it know its days are numbered.

And actually, the way Mark tells it, it’s the demon who tells Jesus what’s really going on. It’s the demon who already knows who Jesus is and why he’s come. While these new disciples and the crowds are left amazed and astounded and simply wondering who this Jesus might be, this demon is the first voice in Mark’s gospel to accurately identify who Jesus is and why he’s come.

This demon is smart. “I know who you are,” the demon declares boldly, “the Holy One of God.”  And, of course, …he’s right. The demon also knows what’s going on and what’s at stake. In a kind of “it takes one to know one” twist, this evil spirit recognizes the Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism and realizes that the room (the world) isn’t big enough for the both of them. The demon recognizes that whatever control he has over a human person is nothing compared to the authority that Jesus has over him.

“I know who you are, and I know that your coming is the end of me. Jesus, you have come to destroy us, haven’t you?” This demon was smart. This demon knows that Jesus is the Holy One of God and his coming sounds the death knell for the demon’s power over people. All Jesus needs to say is “Shut up, and get out.”

So what then does Mark want us to learn from this smart demon? To use a version of the demon’s question, “What does all of this have to do with us?

Well, first of all, I think it means that when we think about sin and evil in our lives and world, it’s helpful to remember that it cannot all be explained in human terms and the blame laid at human feet. The dirty, noisy, chaotic, disruptive, unhelpful thoughts, feelings or impulses that captivate our lives and world, including the addictions, compulsions, abusive behaviors, and dependencies, physical, chemical, emotional and spiritual that we and our world so suffer from, and that we’re so eager to find someone or something to bear the blame and responsibility for so that we can do away with them, or protect ourselves from, just might be bigger than all of us, and since obviously not in our ability to manage very well, also not within our power to defeat.

I think Mark might be starting his gospel with the simple, yet powerful message that what we need is God, and that what we’ve gotten in Jesus is the God we need.

The truth is that we simply can’t clean up all the dirt ourselves. We can’t quiet the noisy chaos, we can’t stop the disruptive, unhelpful thoughts or impulses that captivate our lives and world. Ask anyone in a recovery program and they will tell you that the best we can do is learn how to manage or cope or control these life-sapping forces, but we need a higher power to defeat them. We need God. We need the God who came in Jesus to cast them out and destroy them.

So listen to the smart demon, because he’s the one who speaks the good news from Mark today, namely that our demons, no matter how firm their grip on us, or how powerless we feel against them, are NO MATCH for Jesus.  When it comes to sin and evil and all the damage and pain they cause, the good news is that this is God’s fight to win and God engaged and won it in Jesus and his cross and resurrection.

And now this is the place where the same battle is engaged for us but still not by us. It’s still between Jesus and the demons, and Jesus still wins. Jesus is the Holy One of God. Jesus hasn’t come here today for nothing, and hasn’t brought you here for nothing either. Jesus comes here today to destroy the demons, even those that have taken up residence in us, even those that remind us daily that we can’t live without them. Jesus comes to destroy them. He commands them and they have no choice but to obey. And then Jesus fills that vacated spirit space within us with his own Spirit, his own body and blood, his own death and resurrection, his own new and endless life, and then bids us to share and live that good news out into our lives and world.

Again, the good news is, it’s not your battle to wage and win. It’s God’s. And the most important thing that you can do is stay close to God, so that God can fight for you, especially when the demons seem strongest. Here, we know who Jesus is - the Holy One of God. Here, we bring our need for God, and here, we receive the God who came in Jesus.

Here, the Spirit of God is unleashed, and we know the demons are done for.   AMEN